Pioneer Family statue (Oberlin, KS)
1971 sculpture by local artist Pete Felten, Jr. Local residents were unsure about the sculpture when it was first proposed, but soon grew to like it.
Backstory and Context
Pete Felten, Junior, produced several frontier-themed monuments for communities near his hometown in western Kansas in the 1970s. This pioneer family for Oberlin, completed in 1971, was the earliest. Felten sculpted a frontier father, mother, daughter, and son, standing in a circle facing outward. Most pioneer family monuments feature a father and mother standing together, with their young son in front of them. In contrast, the Oberlin family stands in a circle with their backs toward one another and their arms linked, a defensive posture suggesting the pioneers’ reliance on the family unit for survival.
The Oberlin pioneer family circle suggests a greater degree of equality among the characters than the pyramidal shape typical in earlier decades. Indeed, the father in the Oberlin family bends his knees to embrace his children, decreasing the extent that he towers over the rest of the family. In keeping with earlier pioneer family monuments, the mother leans gently backward into the family circle, maintaining its core. But in a gesture toward feminism’s growing influence, their teenage daughter leans slightly outward to embrace the future. Their young son bends his knees, mimicking his father’s posture, and appears ready to leap outward at the first opportunity.
Public reactions to Felten’s initial proposal were mixed, but many skeptics apparently agreed with Ira Laidig: “When I first saw it I didn’t like it, but the longer I sit here the better it looks.”1 What initially felt to many rural Kansans like too much of a departure from established pioneer family imagery soon grew more comfortable.
“Felten At Work On Oberlin’s Statue,” The Oberlin Herald, June 24, 1971.
Prescott, Cynthia Culver. Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory. University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.